The Power of a Name

Romans 10:8-13

Luke 4:1-13

Lent is a time of self-examination. We look in the mirror of our lives and reflect upon the choices we make and the reality of our mortality. During Lent, we are asked to consider whether our lives bring beauty or ugliness to the world. In light of our mortality, we are challenged to prune away whatever is inessential and whatever gets in the way of God’s call in our lives. During Lent, we remember that we can never make it on our own, but need a power and wisdom greater than our own and a loving community to face the temptations of life and the painful and unavoidable realities of aging, sickness, and death.   We need the power of a name.                                   Sixty years ago, Martin Luther King was called to be leader of the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott. In the midst of the crisis, he received nearly forty death threats each day. One night, he reached his breaking point. He couldn’t sleep and so he went downstairs to make himself a cup of coffee. He spiritually collapsed.   He wanted to quit the movement without appearing to be a coward. In King’s words, “I sat there and thought about a beautiful little daughter who had just been born. I’d come in night after night and see that little gentle smile. I started thinking about a dedicated and loyal wife, who was asleep upstairs. And I got to the point that I couldn’t take it any longer. I was weak.”

In the midnight hour, King turned to prayer. He sat in front of an untouched cup of coffee and began to pray out loud:  “Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. Now, I am afraid. And I can’t let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”

In that moment, King heard an inner voice, “Stand up for justice,” and in the still of the night, he felt God’s presence regardless of what would come. A few days later, King’s house was bombed, and no one was injured. King was saved by the power of a name, the name of God, and we were saved as a nation because God answered King’s prayer.

I know about the power of a name. When our son was diagnosed with a life-threatening cancer, I tried to hold it together. I was his father and I needed to be strong for him and my family. But, I was afraid and in shock. Each morning as I walked around the hospital grounds, I prayed the Jesus prayer, “Lord, have mercy…Christ, have mercy…Lord, have mercy.” And, I received enough strength and peace to keep my head and be the parent I needed to be at the time.

Call on the name of Jesus and you will be saved, so says the apostle Paul. The name of Jesus has power to transform your soul and the very cells of your body.

Anne Lamott says that the three key prayer words are “wow,” “thanks,” and “help.” In the very process of calling for help, help is on the way. We discover that we are not alone and that right now in our moment of need, God is providing persons and insights to help us face what once was beyond our power.

Jesus went to the wilderness to pray. He was seeking guidance about his vocation as God’s Messenger and Savior. He had experienced the power of God’s Spirit, filling his mind, heart, and indeed the very cells of his body. But, with great power comes great temptation. He wants to use his power for God and not self-interest. So he goes to the desert, and in the silence voices emerge. He’s tempted by comfort food, safety and security, and power to change the world. He’s tempted by good things – food, safety, and power are all essentially positive – except when they get in the way of God’s call in our life.

Jesus is tempted. By whatever name, something diabolical wants to take him off course. He struggles as we do – to be compassionate, to let go of anger, to hold back a hurtful word, to deal with our addictions to food, comfort, alcohol, and drugs. He might have been on the edge of succumbing to temptation, but Jesus finds his spiritual center by invoking God’s presence and wisdom. It wasn’t easy for Jesus, and it isn’t easy for us, but Jesus moved forward, with all his temptations, because he called on the name of God.

Three years later, Jesus experienced deep temptation in the garden of Gethsemene. The cross is on the horizon and like us he wants to avoid suffering, indignity, and death. In that moment of decision, he calls out to God, “I want to live, but your vision, your will, be done.” In calling on God, Jesus receives a sense of peace and power, and the way of the cross becomes the way of life for us and the world.

God has a vision for our lives and it comes amid our day to day challenges. It comes in times of threat and temptation. It comes when we discover that our wisdom and power, and self-control, are insufficient. It comes when are standing in the need of prayer.

Everyone who calls on the name of God will be saved, regardless of what you’ve done and regardless of your shame over the past or anxiety about the future.

A quarter of a century ago, my mother died without warning. It was the eve of our son’s tenth birthday, so Kate and I decided that we would go ahead with the party, and I would fly out to California on my own. I was grief stricken, but felt pretty strong, until Kate dropped me off at the airport.   As I walked toward the terminal, I felt completely alone, and thought to myself, “What the blank I am doing?” A fear descended on me. What was I going to do? I had to go forward, though I wanted to race back to the car. Of course, given the reality of airports, I could have stopped at a bar and drank myself into a stupor and slept all the way to California. I was tempted. But, then another alternative emerged – call on Jesus. And so I cried out in silent prayer, “God help me.” The days ahead were painful, but I survived the flight, and even felt some peace of mind. I was able to comfort my Dad and my mentally ill brother and deal with the logistics of the funeral and insurance. In all my fear and grief, I felt God was with me.

Call on the name of God and you will be saved – by a power and wisdom greater than we imagine that comes through insights, guidance, the words of a friend, a chance encounter, or an unexpected sense of peace that gives us the courage to take the next step, to speak out for justice, to reach out to lonely and lost, to deal with our addictions and anxieties in healthy ways, and to know that God is giving us everything we need not only to survive but thrive in life’s most difficult moments. That is the power of a name, the name of Jesus.